The Passing of a Country Grammar School
Teacher Education and Human Rights
Audrey Osler and Hugh Starkey, 1996
London: David Fulton
201pp £14.99 paperback ISBN 1-85346-406-6
Review by Derek Gillard
© copyright Derek Gillard 2002
I cannot imagine a book less likely to be read by most of those engaged in education. Which is a shame, because, at a time when the new government is actively pursuing the same dreary path worn by its predecessor (standards, basic skills, incompetent teachers etc) it is a timely reminder that education is about more than this.
The book is in three parts. In the first, Human rights, international agreements and shared values, Osler and Starkey give an invaluable summary of the history of human rights declarations and legislation, and in particular, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. They point out that 'All teachers need to be familiar with the whole of the Convention, and indeed Article 42 requires the state to make the rights contained in the Convention widely known to both adults and children'. They also note that, in the UK, 'While parents, as education 'consumers', have had certain rights of access to decision-making and appeal extended, for example in the choice of their child's school, recent legislation has ignored children's voices in decisions affecting their education'.
They discuss some of the problems facing those who work in this area. For example, they note that, while the universal status of human rights is accepted by all major religious groups, 'there are many examples of behaviour apparently justified by religion which clearly contravene the spirit and often the letter of human rights obligations ... One criticism of the notion of the universality of human rights is the argument based on cultural relativism and the contention that different societies are entitled to continue 'traditional' practices even if these offend human rights norms. Exploitation of child labour and mutilation as a judicial punishment have been justified on these grounds'. Cultures may include elements of inequality, but 'this does not mean that such practices should be sustained in a public education system'.
In the UK, programmes to promote race and gender equality in schools have continued to be called in question by the political right. Indeed, Conservative government ministers have even suggested that teachers should not concern themselves with the politics of race or gender. 'Human rights issues are invariably political and there is a danger that teachers who engage with them may be subject to accusations of political bias or indoctrination.'
In Part 2, Human rights education and political realities, Osler and Starkey look at ways to challenge racism, xenophobia and intolerance. Again, they outline some of the problems: 'Schools in the 1990s, obliged to respond to legislation relating to curriculum, school development, the role of LEAs, resources and training, and in the face of hostile attacks from the political right, have found it difficult to sustain their commitment to the development of a curriculum and ethos which promotes diversity and tolerance, and challenges racism and xenophobia'.
They note that the 1995 Rowntree Enquiry into income and wealth showed that since 1979 there is no industrialised country in the world, other than New Zealand, where economic disparities have grown faster or greater than Britain. 'Some governments, whilst making a public commitment to combat racism, are simultaneously pursuing economic policies the effect of which is to increase social inequalities.' A disillusionment with politics is a threat to democracy itself and therefore to human rights. 'Education for citizenship is where education and politics meet overtly. Teachers may find this very uncomfortable.' Schooling is about educating citizens who are entitled to help shape their present as well as the future.
In the final section, Human rights and the curriculum, Osler and Starkey look at teacher education. This is particularly timely, given that in February the Teacher Training Agency sent out for consultation proposals for 'Standards and Requirements' for teacher training in England and Wales. This frightening document says nothing about a teacher's role in moral education and lacks any indication of the educational values underpinning its own proposals - perhaps because there aren't any. As Osler and Starkey point out, 'Preparation for teaching basic skills and subject specialisms dominate the curriculum of initial teacher education ... much that goes under the heading of education for citizenship is low status, poorly organised, unpopular with students and teachers and ineffective ... a knowledge of human rights principles and basic standards should be part of every teacher's basic tool kit'.
It is vital that schools take their role in this area seriously, since, in most countries they are 'likely to be the most important agency for transmitting information on human rights'.
The pedagogic principles enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are listed and discussed: dignity, security, participation, identity, inclusivity, freedom, access to information, privacy. The legacy of the French educator Celestin Freinet (1896-1966) is seen as important: it is based on a child-centred pedagogy with active learning approaches, formal cooperative structures at class and school level, pupils' publications, class and school exchanges and an international perspective. In this country, the Oxford Development Education Centre has produced a useful set of materials designed to prepare young people for active citizenship.
In the final chapter, Looking to the future, Osler and Starkey suggest that 'the feeling for community and for citizenship may be declining'. Hardly surprising when Mrs Thatcher suggested that 'there is no such thing as society'. It is therefore even more important that teachers are aware of the importance of human rights education. 'Human rights are made known in two ways in schools: first by opportunities to learn about human rights in a formal and structured way; second by the ethos and climate of the school expressed in public documents making specific reference to human rights.'
'Schools are very special communities. They are communities based on explicit ethical principles. For many children school is the one place where they are secure and where they are valued.'
I hope David Blunkett, Stephen Byers et al will read this important book. I commend it to all those involved in education.